Middle splits can be beastly. Often we push too far too fast, going past our body’s limits without the proper strength and control. Sometimes this means that we just hate middle splits, but it can also lead to pain and injury if we push too hard.
One of the most common places to feel pain from middle splits is in the knee joint.
There are a few common reasons why this position can have a profound effect on the knees:
1. A lot of folks do not have strong knees when they are completely straight, as they are in middle splits. Even if your knees are strong in a bent position, you may not have worked to strengthen them in full extension.
2. The muscles and fascia along the inside and outside of the knee joint (the sartorius and gracilis on the inside and the IT band attached to the gluteus maximus and tensor fascia latae on the outside) are also hip muscles. That means that hip position affects knee position and if something is pulling at the hip, and the hip is tight, that pulling can radiate down to the knee. If the knee is unstable, it is easily pulled out of alignment.
3. Knees are designed for movement the sagittal plane (forward and back, like when you kick a ball), and a very small amount of rotation, but not at all for side to side. Generally if you see a knee moving sideways, like a pendulum, you’re going to worry about it. The force on the knee joint during middle splits is a shearing force, along that sideways plane. Knees don’t like it and need extra reinforcement to withstand it.
To counteract these effects and protect the knees, one of my first go-to approaches is to practice engaging the knee stabilizing muscles in the quads and hips while finding full extension of the knee.
The two exercises shown in the video below both emphasize the work of the outer quad (the vastus lateralis) and the outside butt/hip muscles (gluteus maximus and TFL) that connect to the knee via the IT band.
I find this approach effective because middle splits put the the inner thigh muscles under a lot of tension, particularly in folks with tight hips. This pulls the knee inwards, bringing it out of alignment. Learning to use the outside butt stabilizes the knee and provides support for the hip, facilitating some ease and lengthening for the inner thighs.
These are great exercises for anyone with knee pain in normal life too. The side butt-to-knee connection is vital to maintaining lower limb stability and prevents the dreaded knee valgus (when the knee collapses in) on squats and lunges.
Some important things to keep in mind when trying out these exercises:
1. Start slow. It’s important to feel the muscles in your outside butt and quads doing the work. If they aren’t used to working like this they may fatigue very quickly and try to outsource their work to other muscles. Keep the work gentle enough, and short sets, to target the desired muscle groups.
2. Straighten your legs all the way when there is no weight on them. The knees are most vulnerable when they are fully extended, especially for us lucky noodles with hyperextended knees. You want to build strength in this position while they aren’t burdened with the extra job of holding you up.
3. If you have knee pain during these exercises, or if these exercises don’t help your knee pain, then it’s important not to keep doing them anyway. Take the time to continue to investigate, and seek out professional help if needed. There are many possible causes of knee pain and these exercises are not going to address all of them, alas.
Check out the video below for the exercises. A band or strap is useful but not necessary to get the most out of this mini-workout.
Be kind to your knees, friends. They are crabby little beasts and when they are out of sorts they can make your life less pleasant!
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